One in six days out of the official bathing season were “unswimmable” last year due to sewage pollution near beaches, a report says.
Water companies in England and Wales issued more than 5,500 alerts of sewage being discharged into coastal waters last year, according to campaign group Surfers Against Sewage – up significantly on the year before.
The data collected by the group shows 5,517 alerts were sent in the 12-month period to the end of September – an 87.6% increase on last year’s figure of 2,941.
Some 3,328 alerts were issued during the summer bathing season, up on 2020’s figure of 1,195 – suggesting that the problem of pollution in coastal waters is worsening.
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said the findings of were “shocking and outrageous” but “by no means unexpected”.
Last month, the government made a U-turn to back legal controls on water firms dumping raw sewage in the sea and rivers, following a public outcry.
During periods of heavy rain or storms, wastewater is released into rivers and coastal areas as a way to prevent sewers from becoming overloaded by sewage and rain then backing up into homes and businesses.
But the UK’s water infrastructure has been struggling to keep pace as climate change causes greater rainfall and the population continues to grow, meaning water firms are resorting to sewage outfalls more and more frequently.
Surfers against Sewage uses notifications of sewage discharges to issue real-time alerts to swimmers, surfers, paddleboarders and kayakers.
It said the problem of pollution from storm overflows was increasing but warned there was not a direct correlation between heavier rainfall and more discharges.
Southern Water scored worst for the total number of discharges, and for the average discharges per location and per 10,000km of sewage network, according to the report.
Surfers Against Sewage warned that with some water companies only providing information during the bathing season and data only available for coastal waters, the figures are likely to be a conservative estimate for the number of times sewage is ending up in the seas and rivers.
The charity said all water companies had now agreed to provide notifications throughout the year – important as more than half (56%) of recreational visits to the coast occur outside the summer months.
The water quality report also highlighted the poor state of UK rivers.
As part of the charity’s data collection, citizen scientists conducted regular water sampling at eight locations where a river flows into the sea at, or close to, a designated bathing water.
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The testing found six out of the eight sites monitored had elevated E.coli levels, showing overall poor quality results throughout the bathing season, Surfers Against Sewage said.
Mr Tagholm said: “Time and time again, governments have claimed concern over the pollution of rivers and seas, but have so far failed to take concrete action to change the status quo.
“Loopholes in laws and systematically defunded regulators have left water companies to run amok.”
He added: “We need water companies to clean up their act and commit to a decade of change to ensure our rivers and coastlines are thriving with people and wildlife again.”
The report comes after the Environment Agency and Ofwat launched a major investigation after checks revealed that some water firms may be releasing unpermitted sewage into rivers and watercourses from treatment works.
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